Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday. 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Reservations suggested. Prices: Most dinner entrees, $6.25-$8.Cards: American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa. By Mark and Gail Barnett Special to The Washington Post
The China Garden is a rambling, nondescript restaurant on a quiet Bethesda street, yet it's generally jammed on weekend nights -- with good reason. The prices are low, the portions are heroic and the food is generally very good. It's good enough to remind you of how delightful it can be to get back to Cantonese cooking after the past decade's stress on the more fiery pleasures of Szechwan and Hunan cuisines.
Fried appetizers are beautifully done. Egg rolls, generous in size and crammed with bits of meat and crunchy vegetables, are crisp-skinned and admirably ungreasy. Shrimp toast, too often an oily disaster, is golden-light, with a fluffy interior that's unpenetrated by excess oil.
Soups, judging from the two we tried, are gems. Hot and sour soup is rich, thick and peppery, has more chicken than most and balances the peppery, tart, flavors in just the right proportions. For those who wants something meat-free, the Chinese vegetable soup combines a fine, clear chicken broth with lots of lively bok choy, snow peas and mushrooms (including relatively expensive straw mushrooms).
Continuing on the vegetarian note, there is an excellent vegetable lo mein -- unusual, and a good idea -- with firm, chewy noodles and crunchy water chestnuts, scallions and bok choy. And, commendably, the lo mein is free of the excess oiliness that sometimes makes these dishes unpleasantly heavy.
Surprisingly, the vegetable combination dish, a standard in Chinese restaurants, has too much sauce and vegetables that are limp.
Twice-cooked pork is a robust gem, with lean slices of roast pork tenderloin that are crusty outside and tender within, crunchy onion and scallion, tender tofu slices and a finely balanced sauce that's slightly hot and slightly sweet. At $6.25 for a big portion, this must be one of the best rib-sticking bargains around. Moo shi pork is a decent rendition, too, with lean meat and crisp vegetables, but it suffers from excessive wetness, the liquid puddling on the plate and squirting out of the rolled pancakes.
Also unsuccessful when we tried it was shrimp in hot spicy meat sauce, which sounds fascinating but turned out to have shrimp well past their prime in an ordinary sauce.
Perhaps the best chicken dish in the house, top-notch by any standard, is roast chicken Cantonese style. It's served beautifully on a big platter, the skin a perfect crunch, the meat remarkably moist and flavorful -- and $8.50 buys you almost enough for a meal for two. Lemon duck is well fried, with a sweet and not cloying sauce, but it's fattier than it should be.
China Garden is neither pretty nor fancy. But the eating can be wonderful.